Food safety is a hot topic in the news this winter, in the wake of a multi-state outbreak of E. coli presumed to be linked to romaine lettuce, and the nationwide caution against eating romaine coming from California. Every restaurant and grocery store around the country took romaine off their shelves, and individuals threw out what they had at home while making sure they shared the caution widely on social media.

But has this much attention been paid to what our students are eating?

Twice each year, federal law requires school kitchens be examined for safety violations. This year, twelve Seattle schools failed those examinations, and hard.

“Typically, we see great scores from schools in regards to food safety violations,” said Leanne Eko, who is the director of Child Nutrition Services in the Washington state Department of Education. “There’s always a standing joke about how it’s the cleanest and the safest place to eat in a community.”

But not this year. In the Seattle Public School District, 12 schools failed their latest inspection with “critical” violations that directly impact the health of students. Things like a lack of hand-washing stations, unsafe holding temperatures for food, and un-permitted food-handling workers indicate that some of these infractions have been ongoing for some time.

As in many school districts, a central kitchen prepares most of the food served at schools, and a lot of that food is then reheated in cafeteria kitchens.

For some low-income students, school-provided meals account for their most reliable source of food, putting them particularly at risk if school food is contaminated. Children don’t have the ability to vet where their food comes from our how it is treated, and any illness will run rampant through the crowded environment of a school, so it’s very important that school kitchens and cafeterias be held to the highest standard.

And it was cafeterias in schools with mostly low-income students that were the most likely to have “unsatisfactory” food ratings in their latest inspection. According to KUOW, in the 2017-18 school year, 32 percent of the district’s schools were majority low-income, but 75 percent of the schools with cafeterias that received an “unsatisfactory” rating in the last inspection are majority low-income.

Food safety experts in Washington recommend that parents do their own research, checking their school’s food safety rating on their county health department website and insisting that their school take immediate measures for any violations.

This should be a lesson to school districts across the country: it’s crucial to keep food safe. Students’ health, and possibly even their lives, depend on it.

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